Customized restaurant markets in everything privacy is dead

A restaurant with three Michelin stars is now trying to up its customer service game by Googling its customers before they arrive. According to a report from Grub Street, an Eleven Madison Park maitre d’ performs Internet recon on every guest in the interest of customizing their experiences.

The maitre d’ in question, Justin Roller, says he tries to ascertain things like whether a couple is coming to the restaurant for an anniversary, and if so, which anniversary that is. If it’s a birthday, for instance, he wants to wish them “Happy Birthday” when they arrive. He’ll scan for photos of the guests in chef’s whites or posed with wine glasses, which suggest they might be chefs or sommeliers themselves.

It goes deeper: if a particular guest appears to hail from Montana, Roller will try to pair up the table with a server who is from Montana. “Same goes for guests who own jazz clubs, who can be paired with a sommelier that happens to be into jazz,” writes Grub Street.

Obviously, the restaurant is just trying to be better in tune with the people sitting around eating its food and drinking its wine. But it seems like a reasonable assumption to believe people posting their birthday dates online aren’t doing so in the hopes that someone they’ve never met before will know, as if by telepathy, to wish them the best on their special day.

There is a bit more here, and for the pointer I thank Donnie Hall.

I am now curious what they would do for me.  Any ideas?

Addendum: Here is what happens if you buy a scale on Amazon.


Oh no, he's an economist. Better get our money up front!

I assume the maitre d' would just arrange for a Pakistani cab driver to take you to his usual lunch destination.

Damn you!

Beat me to it. a strip mall, in a place with only moderately attractive and fairly solemn women.

Does anybody else think it's crazy that restaurants rely on the memory of service staff to know if you're a regular? Does that seem especially primitive in 2014?


At the risk of saying something controversial, that whole privacy thing will be a historical blip. Through most of human existence we lived in small communities with zero privacy. Briefly, we lived in large communities without modern technology. There, anonymity or at least individual obscurity, provided a semblance of privacy. But that's going away now and things will be back to normal.

This is not to say I don't have concerns about what's being created, but it's the large-scale and systematic use of your information that's troubling, not privacy per se. For most of human history we spend most of our time conditioning our behavior on the fact that there are people around watching us - I'm not sure this was such a bad thing. We have not lived in a world where the government was the one doing the watching - where the power balance between the watcher and the watched was so out of whack.

Wasn't there a very similar article recently about Doctors googling up their patients before an appointment?

I can't imagine this would ever be a common occurrence. Usually the doctor doesn't look at my chart until he's in the room with me. When's he going to have the time to search the net for largely irrelevant information about me?

Not all establishment in the U.S. rely on memory -

'According to the United States Census Bureau (2005), nearly 4.3 million U.S. adults claim to frequent bars and nightclubs on a weekly basis. Bars and nightclubs only constitute 2% of over fifty different categories of leisure activities. Yet bars and nightclubs are definitely a large part of American culture (2007 U.S. Census Bureau). Despite the popularity of these activities to Americans, most patrons are unaware of the underlying threat that faces them each time they visit an establishment that scans their driver’s license. By merely having your driver’s license scanned at a bar or club, all of the information held on that license can be stored indefinitely in an establishment’s unsecured databases.

Identification scanning systems, such as the Z22 Mobile ID Scanner from Tokenworks (2002-2007), are marketed to businesses as the foolproof way to avoid trouble with the law due to allowing underage customers into their establishments. The Z22 “alarms if an ID is underage or expired and helps to identify fake IDs by cross checking the displayed name with that printed on the ID.” It also “records transactions (into a database) so you can prove a specific ID was checked at a specific time which is vital when establishing an affirmative defense with state authorities” (Tokenworks Inc.). Other ID scanners actually scan a picture of the ID and store the whole image in a database. Every piece of information, including name, address, and driver’s license number that is on a driver’s license is stored on a computer owned by the person who owns the scanning equipment (as opposed to a third party). According to Tokenworks Inc., this system “pays for itself by preventing one infraction, typically $2,000 in fines, legal fees, and lost time (first offense). On the third offense, most states will revoke a liquor license, effectively putting the company out of business.” These systems are designed for use in conjunction with a trained door person to prevent minors from participating in the twenty- one and up nightlife.'

This has been going on years.

But there is a certain amount of resistance - 'Oregon seems to be turning into a bastion of privacy, much to the chagrin of various law enforcement agencies. As we recently covered, a district court ruled that the DEA's warrantless access of its drug prescription database (achieved through "administrative subpoenas" that require no judicial approval or probable cause) was unconstitutional. In Oregon, at least, it appears our nation's foremost drug warriors will need to comply with the Fourth Amendment.

Now, there's a pushback against another warrantless collection of data by local police departments. Techdirt reader zip sends in this Williamette Week story detailing the ID scanners police are actively pushing on bar and club owners, supposedly in an effort to cut down on underage drinking.'

Point well made, Finch.

Yes, I concur, Finch made some excellent points.

Just because we have done something through most of human existence may not be a good argument to revert to that status quo.

I anticipate that argument will be made when we bring back slavery.

Pretty much every aspect of current society is running against the oldie goldie standard of hunters and gatherers. Not dying in early childhood, reading and writing, having food at your disposal whenever you like it etc.

But the hunter-gatherer standard was different in one important aspect: with 100 people around, not even the chieftain and other bosses could hide much from you.

The troubling aspect of contemporary privacy violations from positions of power is that you are expected to be "virtually naked", while the power structures operate in tight shade.

I wonder if the guy IS a drug dealer.

For years dentists and accountants and the like have sent birthday cards that doubled as reminders to set an appointment. And plenty of customer loyalty cards have used spending habits to determine future needs, including that Target Stores algorithm that correctly judged a customer pregnant and knew to send childbirth-related product placements.

This just seems like a more ad hoc version of the same attempts to use personal information as a way to be more convenient and focused. Seems like this could have limits for larger parties with only one name given for the reservation.

Creepy system for insecure customers and restaurants. Let the food stand on its own ala the Soup Nazi.

How would TC feel if the waiter quizzed his wife about Dodd Frank because TC's wife works at the SEC? It's rude

As long as the waiter's phone app didn't indicate the best time to kiss his wife, it is likely that Prof. Cowen would just see this as another example of how average is over.

It's not about the food

I think he would clear all the beautiful women out of the restaurant and replace them with screaming people.

In Urdu or Pashto, of course.

"But it seems like a reasonable assumption to believe people posting their birthday dates online aren’t doing so in the hopes that someone they’ve never met before will know, as if by telepathy, to wish them the best on their special day."

Why else would people post their birthday dates online?

Extra headroom.

Bravo Nikki, exactly.
Economist = lousy tipper = which server don't I like?

Oh, and new jersey born and bred

Also, I bought a scale on Amazon and haven't noticed them pushing any drug related paraphernalia ...maybe zip-locks, but they would make sense if the balance precision is ~1 g, I think. Perhaps "big data" uses more than a single point metric.... BTW, every home should have one - great for scaling (kitchen) recipes and weighing snail mail. Teaching kids a bit about conservation of mass. Science projects. And experimental error. Equipment drift and calibration. Oops, my geek is showing.

Yeah I bought a 1000g/0.1g for measuring coffee and didn't get any recommendations besides Aeropress and filters. I think that tweeter must have other Amazon activity that they're interacting with his scale purchase. (A copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, perhaps?)

3000g +/-0.1 g for < $30 ? Wow!

Don't know exactly what the restaurant would do for you, but it would probably involve the Coase Theorem.

If Amazon tells you that you are a drug dealer, you are a drug dealer...or a failed drug dealer #Averageisover

Diner checklist for Prof. Cowen:
1) Obtain Cowen's book, get him to sign it. (ebay revenue)
2) Cross check with other economists present, Place him far from Krugman (NB. place everyone far from Krugman)
3) He'll be blogging, so do not disturb more than necessary..
3) Pay more attn to his wife.
4) Notify Uber, in case pickup required.
5) Call local hole-in-wall, and prewarn that we may want take out at short notice.
6) Don't mention the Austrians (mentioned them once before, but think i got away with it..)
7) Place chess set in obvious view. Briefly mention that Magnus tips generously.
8) Tell him we offer discount for payment in bitcoin.

You know what they'd do: Send you their gruffiest server, and do their best to make sure no beautiful women are visible from your vantage point, trying to signal that the food that you are eating was excellent.

I came here to say that; I am way too late!

I will add though that the chef's special of the day will be explained as his childhood favorite that his Mom used to make for him....

What happens when they get it wrong? I eat at fancy restaurants, but only one result in the first four pages of Google search results for my name is actually me. Ask me about my latest book and I'll have no idea what the heck you're talking about.

That's funny, my parents were just on a recent gastronomic trip to NYC. They ate at Eleven Madison Park and Masa back-to-back nights. The server at Masa could not have been more engaging. In contrast the waitress at EMP gave little attention for a restaurant of its caliber, sometimes even failing to explain the dishes. My own personal experience with EMP had no complaints about service, but it certainly didn't stand out compared to other restaurants of its caliber. Methinks they're wasting effort on Googling people when there's other low hanging fruit to be had.

The best high-end service I've had was at Noma. The waiter's are engaging, fun and knowledgeable without being stuffy. Plus the chefs often bring out the plates and explain the dishes, being on hand to answer questions.

Who the hell needs to have their food "explained" to them?

Who the hell needs to have films explained to them? Yet directors commentaries are popular. Who the hell needs music explained to them? But people love analyzing instruments, influences and key signatures of their favorite songs. Who the hell needs wine explained to them? Studies show that people enjoy wine more when told the tasting notes and background of the wine. What about art, just enjoy pictures that look pretty, no need to pay any attention to the artists, period or background notes in the museum.

If all you care about is stuffing your face and waiting for the dopamine to kick in, then it doesn't matter. But many appreciate the intricacies of the culinary arts and the subtleties of the human palette. In which case knowing the methods used to prepare the food, the types of ingredients and how they were combined, and the flavors and aromas to notice are all important. You can compare similar dishes you've had in the past, and contrast the taste differences with the prep differences. You can cultivate approaches that you like if you cook at all yourself. Not only does it help one savor aspects of the dish that might otherwise be overlooked, but it also helps to build a broader appreciation of food in general.

Some humans like picking a personal pastime. Some avenue that allows them to expand their horizons and grow over time. Others just want to be cynical misanthropes, that mock people for making simple things too complex. But if you ask me, simply paying attention to the immediate and obvious aspects of the human experience, without ever bothering to probe the depths of subtlety, gets pretty monotonous over time.

Ah, so you need an audio tour guide to enjoy an art museum? I'm afraid I don't need side-by-side narration in order to critically appraise, food, film, art, or music. I don't need to turn a dinner out into a high-rent Food Network.

I see, so you know everything there is to know about food, film, art and music. There's literally nothing anything else you have to learn about these subjects. The opinions of experts would of course be moot to you. But for those of us not so blessed, we must humbly rely on the wisdom of others to expand our own knowledge.

Whatever you need to do to justify your conspicuous consumption.

Someone paying $100 for a plate of pasta and salad.

Most high end restaurants serve tasting menus, often times consisting of a dozen or more courses. Alinea for example serves 18 courses for a $210 set price menu. That comes out to less than $12 per dish, each world class in preparation and flavor. Your instinct here is to retort that the courses are tiny, but the point of these restaurants isn't to stuff your face. It's to try new experiences in the realm of food that you haven't had before.

Daniel Kahneman tells us that the happiness we derive memories are only related to small 15 second highlights. For creating happy memories the first bite is all that matters. Think back the your favorite meal, would the memory be any less salient if it was half the portion size? Of course not.

I agree with you that interpretation _can_ enhance almost any experience. Landscape, architecture, gardens, how a ski area works, the way an urban street functions, what's behind those construction fences etc etc

But "explaining a dish" does sound funny.

So I guess then a really evolved restaurant might offer a critic to stand by to also add a commentary on why everyone laughs when the waiter says "And now I'd like to explain this dish..."

No one. But who the hell wants to live a life where they only do things they need to do?

My brother is a chef, and my mum is a very good cook, and it's very interesting listening to them talk about food and why they made the choices they did when putting together a meal.

Full-spectrum fluorescent light bulbs are another item that will trigger a flood of interesting recommendations. Amazon can't decide if you're growing marijuana or opening a photo studio, so it gives you both.

I've been playing the Amazon recommendation game for years, enjoying the goofy, bizarre, and occasionally even appropriate matches. Suggesting The Complete Benny Hill because I bought a crockpot is still one of my favorites, but I'm sad that they fixed the classification error that made Astroglide the #1 best seller in snore relief pillows.


They would obviously give you a Straussian menu esoterically urging you to eat somewhere less popular, thus satisfying your intellectual vanity on at least two levels. Three, if you figure out why they are doing it.

Nothing! They would find this post and presume you preferred privacy!

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So if I travel from Montana to New York they really think I need a waiter who is from Montana? I wonder what they do for the folks from Detroit?

Obviously you have a stronger ability of pronunciation than the other contestants

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